Oh how far punk rock has come. Imagine back in the ’70s handing Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols acoustic guitars, sending them to Yellowstone National Park and telling them to record an album in the serenity of nature while television cameras follow them around for a TV special. Sound ridiculous? Well, this is the 21st century, and this is exactly what MTV asked the California surf-punk band Unwritten Law to do for its extremely pretentious and silly program, “Music in High Places.” Perhaps emboldened by the long-standing success of their Unplugged program and looking for a way to spice up that almost venerable franchise, the programmers at MTV came up with the idea of sending performers into the wilds of nature with only their acoustic guitars to protect them. Maybe getting in touch with nature would make bands get in touch with the inner essence of their songs. Or maybe it will just make for bad TV.
Either way, the musical results of Unwritten Law’s foray into Yellowstone, isn’t half bad. Hitting the pop radar for the first time last year with the single “Seeing Red,” which found heavy rotation on TRL, Unwritten Law was easy to write off as just another one hit wonder destined to find its way onto a VH1 nostalgia show ten years from now. Their latest album, titled “From Music in High Places,” proves that they deserve a little better than this. Stripped of amplifiers, the band has little to fall back on besides their musicianship and songwriting, and for the most part, they come through on both.
The more relaxed and loose Unwritten Law sounds, the better they are. Unfortunately, the principal behind the Music in High Places project is some sense of music as transcendent and connecting with nature or some kind of silly, pretentious thing like that. And throughout much of the album, Unwritten Law sounds as if it’s falling into this trap of taking itself and its music far too seriously. Although every song but one was recorded live, few of the songs have the loose energy of a live performance, save for the raucous bar-jam “Blame it on Me,” which includes the hoots and hollers of their audience.
Turning acoustic does have a few benefits for the band, allowing them to show off their musicianship on the fast-paced “Rescue Me,” and their surprising melodic ability on “Rest Of My Life.” But by the end of the album, one tires of the earnest, charging guitars and the even more earnest vocals. As good as some of the songs are, they all blend into one big, fast-paced, acoustic jam.
As far as it goes, Unwritten Law plays respectable, well-crafted and skillfully performed post-punk, more in the vein of Jimmy Eat World than the adolescent circus freak show that is Blink 182. But respectable is not always better, especially when it comes to punk rock, and Unwritten Law’s “From Music in High Places” is just a little too tame for its own good.